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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Katharine Hepburn: The 100th Anniversary Collection

2007 is the centenary of quite a few who touched the movies one way or another:
The poet W.H. Auden, novelists Robert A. Heinlein and Daphne Du Maurier, singers Gene Autry, Kate Smith, and Connee Boswell, bandleader Cab Calloway, film score composer Miklós Rózsa, director Fred Zinnemann, and the actors Dan Duryea, Cesar Romero, Buster Crabbe, Laurence Olivier, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, Fay Wray, Burgess Meredith – and one Katharine Houghton Hepburn of Connecticut.

We have already seen tributes to Wayne, and no doubt Olivier and Stanwyck will also be acknowledged. In honor of Miss Hepburn, Warner has issued a rather odd and quite endearing 6-disc boxed set of films not previously available on DVD. They range widely in both chronology and quality, and few would put these particular films at the very top of the Hepburn canon, even the one that won her her first Oscar. But as I watched this motley group of films – two from RKO in the 1930s, three from MGM in the 1940s, and one TV film from the late 1970s, I was reminded what a treasure she was and is. Even in the midst of misguided melodramas and not-quite-good-enough romantic comedies, she gives unique, memorable performances. In two cases, her acting may in fact be memorably off-key rather than memorably wonderful, but she makes all these worth seeing.

Morning Glory (1933) won Hepburn an Academy Award. She’s excellent as a stage-struck young woman who is trying to make it as a Broadway actress. Her eccentric, fascinating performance can even be seen as a stylized self-portrait. The film itself, directed by Lowell Sherman, is dated in fascinating ways: the stilted storytelling, the 1920s/1930s view of Broadway as the ultimate place to become a dramatic star, the sexual mores. Although it’s presented rather obliquely, the parts of the plot involving Hepburn ending up in bed with big producer Adolphe Menjou, falling instantly in love with him and being just as summarily dumped, may leave your jaw dropping both at the “adult” subject matter and the attitudes of another era. Of course, Hepburn eventually understudies for a star-making part, and gets her chance to shine. The bittersweet last scene is both wonderful and a bit ridiculous; this isn’t just from an earlier time – it seems to be from another planet.

Without Love (1945) is often described as the worst of the pictures Hepburn made with Spencer Tracy. It’s no classic, but if you set your expectations accordingly, it’s very entertaining. Defense-industry scientist Tracy and well-to-do young widow Hepburn decide to enter into a marriage “without love,” based on mutual respect rather than, well, sex. This being Hollywood, you can guess how long that lasts (about 10 minutes less than the running time). Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn have amusing supporting roles – it’s fun to see Ball playing a sexy sophisticate, leagues away from Lucy Ricardo. The competent but uninspired direction is by Harold S. Bucquet. His name was up to now unknown to me, but he co-directed another film in this very DVD set (see below), after doing mostly Dr. Kildare series movies before that. And although this is based on a play by Philip Barry, in which Hepburn starred on Broadway in 1942, it is a much less satisfying piece than Holiday or The Philadelphia Story, two earlier Barry-Hepburn collaborations. But she’s very charming and perfectly cast.

Dragon Seed (1944) is the oddest of these six movies. It features a largely Caucasian cast playing poor Chinese farmers during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s. It’s just about impossible for a 21st-century audience not to respond with appalled laughter at what seems now like a stunt. But the script, based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, is nothing if not sincere, and it has its effective moments. Still, seeing the inconsistent and almost entirely unconvincing ways the Hollywood makeup artists try to make Hepburn, Walter Huston, Agnes Moorehead and others look like Asians – well, this is entertainment in itself, after a fashion. But only for half an hour or so, and the film runs a stultifying 148 minutes. It was lavishly produced by MGM. The co-directors were Bucquet (of Without Love) and Jack Conway. Hepburn manages to project some real feeling through the silly makeup and the platitudinous dialogue.

Hepburn gives the nearest thing to a poor performance (in this set, I mean) in Vincente Minnelli’s noirish melodrama Undercurrent (1946). Married to yet another war-era defense scientist (Robert Taylor), this one with a mysterious past, she’s supposed to be meek and scared, and as we all know, that just ain’t Hepburn. But the glossy production, along with Minnelli’s gift for décor and movement, keep this one interesting, even, or especially, when it’s ridiculous. Robert Mitchum plays a supporting role that many have called inappropriate for him, but I think he’s just fine, as is Edmund Gwenn as Hepburn’s father (he turns up again in this set, too).

Although it’s flawed, George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1936) is probably the best movie in the set. It features a fierce, sexy and delightful performance by Cary Grant as a Cockney con man – a role quite different from most of his starring parts. Hepburn is on the run from the French police with her gambler father (Gwenn again), and to put them off the trail she cuts her hair and dresses as a boy – Sylvia becomes Sylvester. This leads to some startling and very entertaining scenes with a bit of bisexual innuendo: a woman kisses and tries to seduce “Sylvester,” and both Grant and Brian Aherne find themselves strangely attracted to this young man. At one point, Grant and Sylvester are set to bunk together in close quarters. “It’s a nippy night out,” says Grant, “and you’ll make a nice little hot water bottle.” Sylvester flees in fright, even though Sylvia of course has a crush on Grant. The Grant and Aherne characters are both visibly relieved when Sylvester transforms back into Sylvia, but the audience may feel a letdown: Sylvester is a captivating, unusual presence, while Sylvia tends to mewl and whine too much. The later twists and turns in the comic-melodramatic plot are far from convincing, but it’s all stylish and fun nonetheless.

I considered cheating a bit on this review and skipping the 1979 The Corn Is Green, also directed by Cukor. But although it is formulaic, it hooked me right away and I enjoyed it right through to the happy-teary climax. The story is a familiar one, a la Pygmalion and To Sir With Love, an 1890s period piece about a teacher, done up in the Hallmark Hall of Fame manner, and Hepburn is probably 25 years older than the part as written. (Bette Davis, born a year later than Hepburn, played this same role in a 1945 film when she was about 36; Hepburn was about 71! Still, Ethel Barrymore was over 60 when she played the part on Broadway in 1940.) There is beautiful Welsh scenery and a fine cast, and Cukor guides it home like the old pro he was by 1979.

Produced under the auspices of Turner Classic Movies, the discs all offer splendid picture and sound quality, and all include short subjects from their era, such as a Tex Avery “Wolf” cartoon and a fabulous Technicolor travelogue of Los Angeles in the Forties. Maybe you only want to see the pedigreed Katharine Hepburn classics like Little Women and Adam’s Rib and Summertime; if so, only Morning Glory and Sylvia Scarlett come close to that grade here. But the other, less familiar movies offer aspects of Hepburn you may not see elsewhere, and their Hollywood craftsmanship, as wrapped by Warner and Turner Classics in nice shiny packages, provides several hours of great entertainment.

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